Authors: Nina Sankovitch
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
My Year of Magical Reading
In Memory of Anne-Marie Sankovitch and for Our Family
We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.
letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904
A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.
âHENRY WARD BEECHER
Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit
Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.
THOMAS Ã KEMPIS
IN SEPTEMBER 2008 MY HUSBAND, JACK, AND I WENT AWAY
for a weekend, leaving our four kids in the care of my parents. We went by car from suburban Connecticut out to the Atlantic beaches of Long Island. We had a Windsurfer lashed to our roof and a bike shoved in the back on top of our few bags filled with clothes and books, enough for three days away. Our vacation weekend was my present to Jack in honor of his fiftieth birthday. I had signed him up for an advanced windsurfing workshop, booked us into a hotel off Montauk Highway, and finagled a dinner reservation at a local hot spot that was notoriously difficult to get into.
On our first day there, while Jack was out riding the wind, I took off on my bicycle. I headed east to Montauk, carrying a book in my bike basket,
by Bram Stoker, along with a water bottle and a packet of chocolate. I rode the winding hills of old Montauk Highway, a road that stays close to the ocean shoreline, buffered only by scrubland, fir trees, and cliffs. After a half hour or so, I stopped my bike by an opening cutting through the brush. There, down a little path, I found a perfect spot. A wooden bench stood rooted to the edge of the cliff, faded to a light and shiny gray by sand, wind, and rain, as if buffed and polished. Sheltered from the sun by an overhanging scrub tree and facing out over the Atlantic Ocean, the bench was both solitary and encompassing. I could sit there and be alone, and then look up and see the world unfolding before me in a cascade of blue-and-white waves and glittering sunlight over water. I leaned my bike against a rock, took the book, chocolate, and water out of the basket, and sat down on the bench to read.
I spent my day on that bench, getting up occasionally to stretch and at one point, riding off in search of a bathroom and lunch. But I returned to read again, caught up in the gothic journey of Dracula from Transylvania to England, and back again to Transylvania. I traveled over mountains and past crazed villagers, dodging vampires and accompanied by the good guys, Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, and Mina. We were fighting to save the world from vampire takeover.
The suddenly shifting cold breezes of early evening brought me back to where I was, sitting on a bench on a Montauk cliff. I had to return to the hotel and get ready for our dinner out. On the bike ride home I stopped at a farmer's market and picked up some apples, a chunk of blue cheese, and a loaf of bread. I stopped at a liquor store for red wine and then swerved my way to the hotel, my bike basket overflowing.
Jack wasn't back yet. Great, I thought to myself
I won't get ready for dinner; I'll just keep reading. To stave off hunger, I cut some cheese for myself, loaded it onto a crust of the bread, and poured out a generous slug of wine.With my hand curled around the glass, I continued to read. Van Helsing was hot on the trail of Count Dracula, closing in on the bloodsucking aristocrat.
I was asleep on my book, drained wineglass on the floor and half the entire blue cheese consumed, when Jack got back from his windsurfing. I didn't even feel him as he slipped in on the couch beside me. When I woke up at ten thirty, he was there behind me, snoring away, smelling salty and sweaty. Our dinner reservation was long past. I wriggled into an upright position, poured myself another glass of wine, and finished off
The next day I realized I had done it. I had read a book in one day. And a very hefty book at that, more than four hundred pages in all. Of course there had been other days in my life when I'd devoured a book in one sitting or in paced feastings over the course of one day. But this book on this day had been a test for me. And I knew now that I was ready. I was ready to read a book a day for one year.
When Jack took off after breakfast for another day of windsurfing, I rode my bike over to the restaurant we'd skipped out on the night before. I arrived sweaty and dusty, eager to explain to the maÃ®tre d' how, last night, we had just slept through our reservation. She was a tall, statuesque beauty, and she laughed as I told her my story.
“I've never heard that one before,” she said as she penciled us in with a star for eight o'clock.
At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.
“To my year of reading,” I announced.
“You're really going to do it?” he asked.
“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.
No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn't get away from the grief and the pain.
It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.
“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”
It is from knowing that he is dead that he wants to protect his son. As long as I live, he thinks, let me be the one who knows! By whatever act of will it takes, let me be the thinking animal plunging through the air.
J.Â M. COETZEE,
The Master of Petersburg
MY SISTER WAS FORTY-SIX YEARS OLD WHEN SHE DIED.
During the few months between her diagnosis and her death, I traveled back and forth from home in Connecticut to New York City to see her. I usually came in by train. On the train I could read. I read for the same reasons I've always done it, for pleasure and escape. But now I was also reading to forgetâfor just a half hour or soâthe reality of what my sister was going through. She had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The cancer advanced relentlessly and quickly. It left pain, helplessness, and fear in its wake.
I always carried with me on the train a book or two for Anne-Marie. After finding out about her cancer, I'd done a furious Internet searchâeveryone hit by the diagnosis does itâand I'd read that reading funny books can help fight the illness. Escapist books would also help with fighting off the evil cells, but the articles advised me to lay off any heavy reading material. So I brought in Woody Allen and Steve Martin for Anne-Marie, and I also brought in lots of murder mysteries. Murder mysteries involve death, and none of us wanted to think about death, but Anne-Marie had always used mysteries to unwind and relax. As an art historian, she'd spent her days poring over dense texts and examining architectural details, plans, and photos. Mysteries were her candy, her vodka tonic, her bubble bath. She loved mysteries rich in detail, deep with atmosphere, and dark in motive. There was no way I was going to deny her now.
One day in mid-April I brought in a mystery for her that I had not yet read. Carl Hiaasen's books are twisted and raucous. I was sure he'd be a good antidote to pain and fear. On the train I laid aside my own book and opened up
. It was very funny and full of atmosphere, crazy South Florida atmosphere. But I quickly realized that the book hit too close to home. The main character, Jack Tagger, is certain he will die in his forty-sixth year. My sister had to make it to forty-sevenâshe had toâand I could not let any doubt creep in. I read the book furtively and quickly and never gave it to Anne-Marie to read.
If I had known for certain that my sister would not make it to forty-seven, would I have moved to New York City to be closer to her, leaving my husband and four boys in Connecticut to fend for themselves? No, I doubt it. Anne-Marie wanted to see me in doses. I was the youngest of three sisters, and Anne-Marie was the oldest, with Natasha in between. All our lives, Anne-Marie told us when she wanted us around and when she wanted us gone, and we listened.
We were raised in Evanston, Illinois, by immigrant parents. They had come to the United States for new opportunities, leaving all family and support behind. We made our own tight-knit unit of five. We had plenty of friends, but my sisters and I felt like aliens most of the time. Our family was different from other families. Our house had more books, more art, and more dust than anyone else's. We had no relatives living close by, no grandparents for the holidays, no aunts for babysitting, no cousins to play with. Our parents had strongâand in the case of my father, scaryâforeign accents. Our mother worked, first as a grad student and then as a full-time professor, from the time I entered kindergarten. My sisters and I were the only kids from our neighborhood who ate lunch in school, and we were the only kids in the whole entire Midwest who had sliced green peppers and hard red pears packed alongside the more ordinary white-bread sandwiches and Twinkies.
Books were a part of my family's life, present in every room and read every night by both parents, to themselves and to us. My mother read to us girls in the living room. I loved lying back on the rug and looking up at the cracked ceiling, listening to the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table. Sir Gawain was my favorite, although he definitely caused my hang-ups over boys later; they were much too easily seduced compared to Gawain. The beautiful Lady Bertilak approaches Gawain day after day, but he never gives in to her kisses. The boys I would grow up to kiss gave in without any effort at all, and yet it was my reputation on the line, not theirs. After King Arthur came the animals of
The Wind in the Willows
. Life in the English countryside post-Camelot seemed so dull. The so-called grand adventure of Mole and Rat was really just a series of mishaps, and the final battle made me yawn. I could not get excited about invading weasels and a slimy toad.
Sunday afternoons were also spent reading, indoors in the winter months, and outside in our small backyard in the summer. It was not until I was in high school and had an American boyfriend that we spent a Sunday afternoon watching a football game. It was the Super Bowl. A surprisingly chivalrous-for-the-day Dan Cromer explained the whole game to my parents and me. But that was the last time he spoke to me, later ignoring me in the hallways at school and never calling back when I left messages at his home. If I didn't understand football, what good could I be?
The first book I can remember claiming as my own was one I stole from the Lincolnwood Elementary School library. It was
My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
by Becky Reyher. I still have that book today. It's on a bookshelf in my bedroom, alongside other favorites from childhood, and it still has its library due-date card: December 6, 1971. I loved that book and just could not return it when the date came. I don't remember if I paid the lost fee.
In the book, Varya, a young Ukrainian girl, becomes separated from her mother while they're working in the fields. People from a neighboring village who are out harvesting wheat try to help Varya find her mother, but the only description the child can give is that her mother “is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The villagers send messengers to all the local farms, asking them to send the most beautiful women back to the clearing where Varya waits, sobbing. One by one, beautiful women are paraded before the little girl, but she shakes her head at each one, sobbing harder and harder. And then a woman comes running up: “Her face was big and broad, and her body even larger. Her eyes were little pale slits between a great lump of a nose. The mouth was almost toothless.” She is Varya's mother, and the mother and child are reunited: “The smile Varya had longed for was once again shining upon her.” That story still brings me to tears. It conveyed to me as a nine-year-old, as it does today, the innocent and resplendent love between parent and child.
My mother really was and still is the most beautiful woman in the world, and Anne-Marie was too: the two most beautiful women in the world, in one family. On the day my sister died, she had been feeling well enough to sit up in bed and put on eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. She never needed that stuff to look good, but it added glamour, even when she was so ill. She let me brush her hair that day, lovely dark blond hair. She had been worried it would fall out in treatment, but we never got that far. We would have traded a lifetime of hair from all of our heads just to have the chance to fight her illness. But the bile duct cancer moved too fast. Treatment turned out to be only a torture, and never a cure.
I wasn't planning on going in to see Anne-Marie the day she died. I'd been to visit her every day since she'd been readmitted to the hospital in early May. On a beautiful spring morning she'd woken to a belly swollen up to horrific proportions. Her system was shutting down, and bile and liquid were backing up. She hung on at home, hoping her insides would start working again, but by evening she knew she had to go back to the hospital. I was out with Jack, celebrating our thirteenth wedding anniversary, when I got the call. We were walking by the river that winds along behind the main street of our town. I closed my phone and walked away from Jack, going out on the pier that juts into the marshes at the river's edge. It was low tide, and the smell of salt and muck and decay mixed with the soft, warm spring breeze. I closed my eyes and cried.
The next day I took the train into the city, then walked the thirty blocks up to New YorkâPresbyterian. And the next day I took the train again, and the next day again.
On the day my father turned eighty years old, Anne-Marie was feeling up to a chocolate truffle and a sip of champagne. I continued to go in every day, and Anne-Marie continued to get better, in increments and with some backtracking. In the last few days she had been eating more, and talking and laughing easily. She had taken to wearing two pairs of reading glasses, one propped on top of the other on her head, just in case. She seemed ready for anything.
I considered taking a day at home to catch up on loads of unwashed laundry and unpaid bills, but Jack urged me to go in and see her.
“Just drive in with me for the morning. You'll be back in time for the boys.” The boys were my older children, Peter, Michael, and George. The youngest of my four, Martin, was still in pre-K and with me for the day. It would cheer my mother up to see him. She could take him to the playground by the hospital, and I could go in for a quick visit with Anne-Marie.
The pants I wore into the city that day were loose on me. In the past month, I'd stopped eating meals regularly and had put an end to wine at night. Just one glass led to crying. Even if the kids were in bed, I didn't want them to wake up and hear me sobbing. The kindness and patience they'd shown me had already exceeded what any kid should have had to muster. Peter had gone in with me one Sunday to see Anne-Marie. When we left her hospital room, he put his arm around me and said, “I love you, Mom.” Eleven years old, and he was comforting me.
Just a few days ago, I'd cried to Michael that Martin was lucky because he was too young to understand that Anne-Marie was dying. Michael answered, “No, Mommy, he's not lucky. He's not lucky at all because he's never going to know Anne-Marie like we do.” Michael remembered his own sleepovers, Scrabble games, and hours of Lego with her. Anne-Marie was always the bad Lego guy, out to ruin the world created by the good Lego guys. Bad Lego guy was always defeated in the end.
I stopped in a store to buy a belt for my falling pants. I wanted something really attention getting. That was my job with Anne-Marie when she was in the hospital: to get her attention, to get her to laugh or to whip out a sharp, smart comment. Proof that she was still with us. I told her funny and startling stories about my kids. I wore new and strange combinations of clothes, each day crazier than the day before. Anne-Marie smiled and laughed when she saw me. She forgot for a minute that she was dying. I would do anything to give her that minute.
So I picked out a shockingly ugly pink-and-white-and-Day-Glo-orange-striped belt, cinched up my old jeans, and went to do the exchange with my mother. She'd take Martin, and I'd take the elevator to the eighth floor.
We had a great visit. Anne-Marie was animated and involved as soon as I came in the room. She gave my belt a well-deserved insult. Leaning over, she took the book I'd brought in for her,
, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. She pulled down a pair of glasses from atop her head to read from a story she'd opened to. Later I read the stories and fixated on the line, “She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.” We all hoped that way. Anne-Marie never had the time to read all the books I'd brought her. She read just one page of the Munro and then closed it up and added it to her pile.
I brushed back her hair from her face; she was lovely. My parents had never compared us as kids. To them we were all smart and beautiful. But we knew the truth: Anne-Marie was the beauty, Natasha was the good girl, and I was the pudgy, funny one.
Three girls, all of us different, but all of us loved books. From the time we could toddle, we toddled toward books. When I was just three years old, the three of us would walk together to the library bookmobile. It stopped at a corner just a few blocks away from our house. In
, Ray Bradbury describes books smelling “like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land.” For me, books do have a spicy smell, but it is a local spice, soothing and familiar. It is the smell of the bookmobile, a mixture of musty pages and warm bodies. We crowded in along the shelves, looking for what we wanted along the lower brackets; the ones above were for the grown-up books. Anchored shelves in the middle of the van were for new releases, with a slot to the side for returning due books. At home we were expected to keep track of our library books and to get them back on time. Anne-Marie and I were usually late, Natasha never.
Piles of books were stacked along the windowsill of Anne-Marie's hospital room, gifts from friends and from family. I was borrowing as many as I brought in. Anne-Marie had just introduced me to the writer Deborah Crombie and her sleuths, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. She reread the series while I worked my way through, virgin and loving it. I was in the middle of
All Shall Be Well
. The title held out hope, and when I had seen the book there on the hospital sill, I'd asked to borrow it. Anne-Marie had said yes, but said she wanted it back. We were all still planning for more time.
My father was there that morning, along with Marvin, Anne-Marie's husband. Marvin slept in Anne-Marie's room every night, and so he was tired every day. Sleep wasn't easy wrapped around a woman in a hospital bed who was hooked up to all kinds of bags and tubes. I sought to make him laugh, and my father too. It was important that I play the fool and jester. When we laughed, we forgot that we were in a room with a woman who had little hope left. The optimism of forgetting stayed with us, allowing us to make plans. Anne-Marie ate her Jell-O, and we all imagined that tomorrow she'd move up to something more solid. We talked about driving out to Bellport, Anne-Marie's house by the sea, as soon as she got out of the hospital. I promised to get her started on a new mystery series I'd discovered, written by M.Â C. Beaton and starring the unambitious but ruggedly adorable Hamish Macbeth, a policeman from the Scottish Highlands. I offered to bring in a couple of titles on my next visit. Anne-Marie looked skepticalâpreferring London to the Scottish countrysideâbut I assured her that Beaton's eccentric characters more than made up for the rural atmosphere. We all laughed again.